Looking back at the History of Wisconsin’s Forests

Wisconsin’s forests have a fascinating history that I loved learning about from  Ed Forrester, president of the Forest History Association of Wisconsin. This article originally appeared in My Wisconsin Woods, the online newsletter of The Aldo Leopold Foundation.

“The history of Wisconsin’s forests includes what happened yesterday and 10,000 years ago. It’s all part of a continuum — both the natural and human aspects of our forests. They can’t be separated,” says Ed Forrester, president of the Forest History Association of Wisconsin (FHAW). FHAW is dedicated to the discovery, interpretation, and preservation of Wisconsin’s forest history.

“We also follow forest history going back nearly to the end of the last glaciation when most of Wisconsin was tundra. That period determined so much of what Wisconsin is today. Eventually, the story of our forests has become a human story. Archeology and forestry go hand in hand for us,” Forrester continued, referring to the 1,200-year-old dugout canoe discovered on the bottom of Lake Mendota in Madison last November and the more recent discovery this May of a 3,000-year-old canoe on the bottom of the same lake. “Those canoes, and others preserved in museums around the state, were the work of the first loggers,” says Forrester. “They converted a tree to a useful product.”

Another major influence on our forests during the time of human habitation is the beaver. “The demand for beaver pelts in Europe brought the French and Spanish and later English explorers to travel the rivers of Wisconsin, and trade with various Native American villages, where they saw the pine trees. That made the world aware of a valuable resource here.”

Not only were the trees here valuable as lumber, but as a crucial nutritional supplement. “In the 1600s scurvy, or lack of vitamin C, was a major problem for sailors,” says Forrester.  “Why didn’t Wisconsin lumbermen suffer from it in the winter? French explorers were having trouble with scurvy on the St. Lawrence River and were helped by Native Americans who showed them that white cedar tea can prevent scurvy. I have to believe that occurred in Wisconsin as well.”

As European settlement in Wisconsin took hold, the logging of Wisconsin’s timber stands rapidly accelerated. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the 1890 U.S. census counted more than 23,000 men working in Wisconsin’s logging industry and another 32,000 at the sawmills that turned timber into boards. “Each winter, the lumberjacks occupied nearly 450 logging camps. In the spring, they drove their timber downstream to more than 1,000 mills. Logging and lumbering employed a quarter of all Wisconsinites working in the 1890s.”

To read more of this story, check out the link to My Wisconsin Woods.

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